Socrates († 399 BC in Athens) was a Greek philosopher fundamental to Western thought who lived and worked in Athens at the time of Attic democracy. In order to gain knowledge of human nature, ethical principles and understanding of the world, he developed the philosophical method of structured dialogue, which he called maieutics (“midwifery”).

Socrates himself left no written works. The tradition of his life and thought is based on the writings of others, mainly his students Plato and Xenophon. They wrote Socratic dialogues and emphasized different features of his teaching in them. Any account of the historical Socrates and his philosophy is therefore incomplete and fraught with uncertainties.

Socrates” outstanding importance can be seen above all in his lasting impact within the history of philosophy, but also in the fact that the Greek thinkers before him are today called pre-Socratics. His posthumous fame was greatly enhanced by the fact that, although he did not accept the reasons for the death sentence imposed on him (alleged corrupting influence on youth and disrespect for the gods), he refrained from evading execution by flight out of respect for the law. Until his execution by the cup of hemlock, philosophical questions occupied him and his visiting friends and students in prison. Most of the important schools of philosophy in antiquity referred to Socrates. Michel de Montaigne in the 16th century called him the “master of all masters,” and Karl Jaspers wrote: “To have Socrates before one”s eyes is one of the indispensable prerequisites of our philosophizing.”

Socrates was the first to call philosophy down from heaven to earth, to settle it among men and to make it an instrument for testing ways of life, customs and values, remarked the Roman politician Cicero, who was an excellent connoisseur of Greek philosophy. In Socrates, he saw personified the abandonment of Ionian natural philosophy, which had been prominently represented in Athens until 430 B.C. by Anaxagoras. The latter”s principle of reason had impressed Socrates, but he missed in Anaxagoras the application of reason to human problems. However, contrary to Cicero”s belief, Socrates was not the first or the only one to place human concerns at the center of his philosophical thought.

During Socrates” lifetime, Athens, as the dominant power in the Attic League and as a result of the development of Attic democracy, was the cultural center of Greece, subject to profound political and social change and a variety of tensions. Therefore, there were good opportunities for the development of new intellectual currents in the 5th century BC. One such broadly based intellectual movement, which also emerged effectively through teaching, was that of the Sophists, with whom Socrates had so much in common that he himself was often considered a Sophist by his contemporaries: the practical life of the people, questions of the polis and legal order as well as the position of the individual within it, the criticism of traditional myths, the examination of language and rhetoric, as well as the meaning and content of education – all this also occupied Socrates.

What distinguished him from the sophists and made him a founding figure in intellectual history were the additional characteristics of his philosophizing. Characteristic, for example, was his constant, probing effort to get to the bottom of things and, in questions such as “What is bravery?” not to be satisfied with superficial, obvious things, but to bring up the “best logos,” that is, the constant essence of the thing independent of time and place.

Methodologically new in his time was the maieutics, the procedure of philosophical dialogue introduced by Socrates for the purpose of gaining knowledge in an open-ended research process. Another original Socratic method was questioning and researching in order to establish philosophical ethics. Among the results achieved by Socrates was that right action follows from right insight and that justice is a basic condition for a good state of the soul. From this he concluded that doing wrong is worse than suffering injustice.

A fourth element of the philosophical new beginning associated with Socrates is linked to this: the significance and proving of philosophical insights in the practice of life. In the trial that ended with his death sentence, Socrates certified to his opponents that they were recognizably in the wrong. Nevertheless, he subsequently refused to escape from prison so as not to put himself in the wrong in his turn. He weighted the philosophical way of life and adherence to the principle that doing wrong is worse than suffering wrong more highly than the possibility of preserving his life.

Little is known about Socrates” career in the first half of his life, and only fragmentary information is available thereafter. The biographical references come mainly from contemporary sources, whose information, however, partly contradicts each other. These are the comedy The Clouds by Aristophanes and works by two of Socrates” students: the Memorabilia (Memories of Socrates) by the historian Xenophon and writings by the philosopher Plato. Plato”s early dialogues and his Apology of Socrates are the most important sources on Socrates. Among those who came after, the main contributors were Plato”s disciple Aristotle and, in the third century CE, the doxographer Diogenes Laertios. Beyond that, only scattered notes, news and anecdotes have survived in other authors of Greek and Latin literature, including Cicero and Plutarch. Further early information can be found in other ancient comedies.

Origin, education, military service

According to Plato, Socrates was 70 years old in 399 BC, which gives the year of his birth as 469 BC. Well secured is the year of his trial and death, 399 B.C. Probably a later invention is that his birthday was the 6th day of the month Thargelion. he came from the Athenian demos Alopeke of Phyle Antiochis and was son of the stonemason or sculptor Sophroniskos. Plato informs that Socrates” mother was the midwife Phainarete. In addition, Plato mentions a maternal half-brother named Patrocles, who is probably identical to Patrocles of Alopeke, who is recorded in an inscription on the Athenian Acropolis from 406405 B.C. as the competition steward of the Panathenaea.

According to the German ancient historian Alexander Demandt, his education followed the usual paths, which included not only literacy, gymnastics and music education, but also geometry, astronomy and the study of the poets, especially Homer. Among his teachers, according to Plato, were two women, namely Aspasia, the wife of Pericles, and the seeress Diotima. On the male side, besides the natural philosopher Anaxagoras, with whose pupil Archelaos Socrates undertook a journey to Samos, the sophist Prodikos and the music theorist Damon, who was close to the Pythagoreans, are mentioned.

The historian of philosophy Diogenes Laertios, writing in the early 3rd century AD, commented on one of Socrates” professions, referring to a now lost source. According to this, Socrates, like his father, would have worked as a sculptor and even designed a group of Charites on the Acropolis. In the traditions of his students, however, there is no mention of this anywhere, so that he must have ended this activity at least early and also probably hardly brought up.

Specific dates are associated with his military engagements in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC): As a hoplite with heavy armament, he participated in the siege of Potidaia 431-429 BC and in the battles of Delion 424 BC and Amphipolis 422 BC. This suggests that he was not impecunious, for the hoplites had to pay for their own equipment.

Socrates made a great impression on the commander Laches and his own pupil Alkibiades in the field by the way he endured cold, hunger and other hardships, and during the retreat after the defeat of Delion he showed prudence, determination and courage with measured steps and ready to defend himself at any time, instead of fleeing headlong like others. He rescued the wounded Alcibiades in Potidaia together with his weapons and then gave him a bravery award that he himself would have been entitled to. So at least the latter testifies it in Plato”s Symposion and reports how he had experienced Socrates in Poteidaia:


Socrates had his center of activity in the busy marketplace of Athens, as Xenophon clarified: “Thus he of all people always did everything in full public view. In the early morning he went to the columned halls and gymnasiums, and when the market filled up, he could be seen there, and also the rest of the day he was always there, where he could be with the most people. And he spoke most of the time, and whoever only wanted to was free to listen to him.” The satirical reading of this was given by Aristophanes in his comedy The Clouds, where Socrates is the main character and is thus addressed by the chorus:

Already in this comedy, performed in 423 BC, Socrates was reproached for godlessness and blinding the youth. His interlocutors in the alleys of Athens and in the Agora belonged to both sexes and almost all age groups, métiers and social ranks that were represented in the Attic democracy.

Plato had Alcibiades say about the character of the Socratic conversation:

Even though Socrates” students in particular seemed to take his questioning in this way, his way of talking was met with incomprehension and displeasure by others:

Engaged polis citizen

Long before the premiere of Clouds, Socrates must have been a prominent figure in Athenian public life, for otherwise Aristophanes could hardly have successfully staged him in the manner mentioned. An undated questioning of the oracle in Delphi by the childhood friend Chairephon also presupposed that Socrates was known far beyond Athens.

In Plato”s Apology, Socrates describes the process: “So he (Chairephon) asked if there was anyone wiser than me. Then Pythia said that there was none.” Socrates named a witness for this in the brother of the deceased childhood friend. According to Xenophon”s version, the oracle statement was that no one was freer or more just or more prudent than Socrates. According to Plato, Socrates, who was faced with his ignorance, derived from this oracle saying the task of testing the knowledge of his fellow men in order to verify the statement of the deity.

However, the historicity of the oracle questioning was already disputed in antiquity and is also denied by some modern researchers. These consider Chairephon”s question in Delphi to be a literary fiction from the circle of Socrates” students. They claim, among other things, that Chairephon had no reason to ask the oracle such a question at a time when Socrates was not yet famous. Proponents of historicity argue that Plato had no reason to invent such a detailed story and put it in Socrates” mouth. If an opponent had then exposed it as fiction, which would have been easy at the time, this would have shaken the credibility of Plato”s entire account of Socrates” defense speech in court.

Unlike the Sophists, Socrates did not allow himself to be paid for his teaching. He deliberately called himself a philosopher (“wisdom friend”). His philosophizing, which often took place in the midst of the hustle and bustle of Athens, could help answer the question of how Athens could assert itself as the “school of Hellas” and promote the individual development of the respective abilities and virtues of its citizens.

Socrates especially liked to test ambitious young politicians by means of his questioning methodology in order to make clear to them how far they were from being able to competently represent the concerns of the polis. According to the testimony of Xenophon, he also did this with benevolent intent with Plato”s brother Glaucon, who proved to be neither well-versed in state finances nor in the assessment of military power relations nor in matters of Athens” internal security. Socrates concluded: “Be careful Glaucon, otherwise your striving for fame could turn into the opposite! Don”t you realize how reckless it is to do or talk about something you know nothing about? If you want to enjoy respect and fame in the state, first of all acquire the knowledge you need for the tasks you want to solve!” In the long run, Socrates made both friends and enemies with his verbal investigations, the manifold questioning, doubting and inquiring: friends who saw his philosophy as the key to their own and the community”s welfare and wisdom, and enemies who regarded his work as blasphemy and harmful to the community.

Occasionally, Socrates also understood himself to give concrete political advice. Xenophon, for example, reported in his memoirs on a dialogue between Socrates and Pericles, the eponymous son of the statesman Pericles, who died in 429 B.C., concerning ways to regain Athens” position of external power in Greece, which had diminished in the course of the Peloponnesian War. After a series of general considerations, Socrates finally proposed to Pericles, who was considered militarily capable, to occupy the mountain range in the direction of Boeotia in front of Attica. He encouraged the man who agreed with him: “If you like this plan, carry it out! All the successes you achieve will bring you fame and benefit the city; but if you do not succeed in something, it will not be harmful to the general public and will not disgrace you yourself.

In 416 B.C., Socrates appeared as guest of honor at the famous symposion held to mark the tragedy victory of the young Agathon, which in Platonic lore also included Aristophanes and Alcibiades in important roles. The next biographically datable event took place ten years later and involved Socrates” involvement in the Athenian response to the naval battle at the Arginuses, where the rescue of shipwrecked sailors under storm had failed. The People”s Assembly acted as the court in the trial of the strategists who had directed the military operation. The executive committee of the Council of 500, the 50 prytans, included Socrates at this time. At first, it seemed that the strategists could prove their innocence and be acquitted. On the second day of the trial, however, the mood changed, and there was a demand that the strategists be found guilty together. The prytans wanted to declare the motion illegal, because only individual trials were allowed. But since the people, fully aware of their sovereignty, did not want to be forbidden anything, and the prytans were threatened with co-conviction, all but Socrates gave in.

According to Plato”s testimony, Socrates demonstrated a very similar attitude once again in 404403 B.C. under the arbitrary rule of the Thirty, when he refused the order of the oligarchs to join four others in the arrest of an opponent of the rulers who was considered innocent. Instead, he simply went home, knowing full well that it might cost his life: “At that time I truly proved again, not by words but by deed, that I do not care so much for death either, if it does not sound too rough, but that I care all about doing nothing wrong or impious.”

A clear preference for a certain type of constitution or the rejection of organizational structures of Attic democracy, which formed his framework of influence, is not recognizable in Socrates-unlike in Plato. Ekkehard Martens sees in Socrates rather a promoter of democracy: “With his demand for a critical search for truth and orientation towards justice, Socrates can be regarded as a founder of democracy. This does not exclude a criticism of certain democratic practices according to their criteria. However, Socrates” criticism in Plato”s State (8th book) cannot be attributed unseen to the historical Socrates himself, but must be understood as Plato”s view. However, Socrates also placed the principle of factual decision above that of majority decision (Laches 184e), a conflict of any democracy that has not been overcome to this day.” For him, the most important thing was to uphold a law that was superior to every form of government and to be an example to his fellow citizens in this. Klaus Döring writes: “As far as dealing with the respective rulers and the institutions of the polis was concerned, he pleaded for loyalty, as long as one was not forced to do wrong, i.e. to proceed exactly as he himself did. As everyone knew, he himself, on the one hand, had scrupulously fulfilled his civic duties, but on the other hand, even in precarious situations, had not let himself be dissuaded from never doing anything other than what proved to him to be the just thing to do after conscientious examination.”

Process and death

The trial of Socrates can be attributed to a wide range of motives. Charges of impiety, so-called Asebie trials, had already been pursued before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. At that time, they had been directed against personalities in the environment of the leading statesman Pericles, who had promoted and represented the development of Attic democracy. Thus, in the 430s B.C., Pericles” wife Aspasia, Phidias, who had been commissioned to design the Acropolis, and the philosopher Anaxagoras had been brought under asebia charges.

In his comedy The Clouds, Aristophanes had not only caricatured Socrates as a supposed sophist, but also criticized his use of terms as a dangerous distortion of words. Socrates may have drawn additional resentment from the anti-citizen and anti-democratic behavior of two of his students: Alcibiades had repeatedly switched sides during and after the Sicilian expedition, and Critias, as leader, was one of those thirty who had established an oligarchic tyranny in 404403 BC with massive support from Sparta. However, according to Xenophon, the undesirable development that Critias and Alcibiades eventually took occurred not because of, but in spite of, their dealings with Socrates. From this, Xenophon concluded that any educational influence presupposed a relationship of sympathy: “Critias and Alcibiades, however, did not enter into contact with Socrates because he was sympathetic to them, but because they had made it their goal from the outset to become heads of the state .” Both of them, having developed some arrogance towards politicians on the basis of Socratic conversation, would have avoided contact with Socrates in order not to be convicted by him of their errors. Of the rest of Socrates” students, none had gone on a bad track, Xenophon emphasized.

The trial of Socrates in 399 B.C. is reported – partly in disagreement – by both Plato and Xenophon. Both authors have Socrates express himself in terms of their own respective goals. Xenophon emphasizes Socrates” conventional piety and virtue, while Plato shows him as a pattern of philosophical life. The account of Plato, who as a trial observer gave a detailed account of Socrates” contributions in the Apology, is overwhelmingly regarded as the more authentic. For the circumstances of the execution only second-hand information is available, because neither of the two reporters was an eyewitness. Plato”s dialogues Kriton and Phaidon also deal mainly with the trial and death of Socrates.

According to the Apology, Socrates acted in court in the same way as he had been known in Athenian public life for decades: as a scrupulous investigator, inquirer and relentless revealer of the results of his research. The first and by far the longest contribution was his justification to the accusations. He reacted to the accusation that he was corrupting the youth with a thorough exposure of the accuser Meletos, in which he also involved the jury and finally all the citizens of Athens, when he cornered Meletos with the question of who he thought was responsible for the improvement of the youth, and then drew his conclusion: “But you, Meletos, sufficiently prove that you have never given any thought to youth, and visibly you display your indifference, that you have not cared for any of the things for which you take me to court. “

He also rejected the charge of impiety. He always obeyed his daimonion, which he presented as a divine voice that occasionally warned him against certain actions. He explained to the jury that he would not agree to be released on the condition that he cease his public philosophizing: “If, therefore, you would release me on such a condition, I would answer: I esteem you, men of Athens, and love you, but I will obey the God more than you, and as long as I breathe and have strength, I will not cease to philosophize and to fire you….”

In the role of the defendant, he presented himself as a defender of law and legality, refusing to influence the jury by appeals to pity and entreaties: “For it is not for this purpose that the judge takes his seat, to give away justice according to benevolence, but to find the verdict, and he has sworn – not to be pleasing when he happens to want to, but – to do justice according to the laws.”

By a narrow majority of votes (281 out of 501), he was found guilty by one of the many tribunals of the Attic democracy. According to the trial procedure of the time, Socrates was allowed to propose a punishment for himself after being found guilty. In his second speech, Socrates insisted that he had done only good to his fellow citizens through practical philosophical instruction, and that for this he deserved not the death penalty he had requested, but rather the feeding in the Prytaneion, as Olympic champions received. In view of the guilty verdict, he then considered various possible strategies, but in the end considered at most a fine acceptable. After this, the jury now sentenced him to death with a majority that grew by another 80 votes to 361.

In his final speech, Socrates once again emphasized the injustice of the condemnation and accused the accusers of malice, but he expressly accepted the verdict and, according to Plato”s tradition, said: “Perhaps all this had to happen this way, and I believe that it is the right providence. Those jurors who had wanted to acquit him, he tried to calm down with explanations about the little terrible consequences of death. He asked them to see to the enlightenment of his sons in the way he himself had practiced to the Athenians: “But already it is time for us to go – I to die, you to live: but which of us takes the better way, no one knows, except God.”

Socrates also insisted on this to the friends who visited him in prison and tried to persuade him to escape. The opportunity to do so arose from the fact that the execution, which normally took place shortly after the sentencing, had to be postponed in this case. During the annual legation to the holy island of Delos, which took place at this time, no executions were allowed for reasons of ritual purity.

On Socrates” last day, the friends, among whom Plato was absent due to illness, gathered in the prison. There they met Xanthippe, Socrates” wife, with their three sons. Two of the sons were still infants, so Xanthippe must have been far younger than her husband. Socrates had Xanthippe, who was wailing loudly, led away to prepare for death by talking with his friends. He justified his refusal to flee with respect for the laws. If judgments were not obeyed, laws would lose their power in the first place. Bad laws had to be changed, but not violated wantonly. The right of free speech in the people”s assembly offers the chance to convince people of proposals for improvement. If necessary, those who preferred this could go into exile. According to tradition, Socrates emptied the cup of hemlock that was finally handed to him completely composed. In his last words he asked to sacrifice a rooster to Asclepius, the god of healing. The reason for this request has not been handed down, and its meaning is disputed in research. Alexander Demandt thinks that Socrates wanted to express that he was now cured of life, that death was the great health.

What would remain of the philosopher Socrates without the works of Plato, asks Günter Figal. He answers: an interesting figure of Athenian life in the fifth century B.C., hardly more; secondary perhaps to Anaxagoras, definite to Parmenides and Heraclitus. Plato”s central position as a source of Socratic thought poses the problem of a demarcation between the two imaginative worlds, for Plato is represented in his works as a philosopher in his own right at the same time. There is widespread agreement in research that the early Platonic dialogues – the Apology of Socrates, Charmides, Criton, Euthyphron, Gorgias, Hippias minor, Ion, Laches, and Protagoras – show the influence of Socratic thought more clearly and that the independence of Plato”s philosophy is more pronounced in his later works.

The core areas of Socratic philosophizing include, in addition to the quest for knowledge based on dialogues, the approximate determination of the good as a guideline for action and the struggle for self-knowledge as an essential prerequisite for a successful existence. The image of Socrates in the streets of Athens, talking from morning till night, is to be extended by phases of complete mental absorption, with which Socrates also made an impression on his fellow citizens. An extreme example of this trait is Alcibiades” description of an experience in Potidaia, which is contained in Plato”s Symposion:

Socratic conversation, in turn, was clearly related to erotic attraction. Eros as one of the forms of Platonic love, presented in the Symposion as a great divine being, is the mediator between mortals and immortals. Günter Figal interprets: “The name of Eros stands for the movement of philosophy that transcends the realm of the human. Socrates can philosophize best when he is taken in by the wholly unsublimated beautiful. Socratic conversation does not take place after once having succeeded in ascending to that nonsensical height where only the ideas appear as the beautiful; rather, it continually performs within itself the movement from the human to the superhuman beautiful, and dialogically ties the superhuman beautiful back to the human.”

Meaning and method of Socratic dialogues

“I know that I do not know” is a well-known, but strongly abbreviated formula, which clarifies what Socrates had ahead of his fellow citizens. For Figal, Socrates” insight into his philosophical not-knowing (aporia) is at the same time the key to the object and method of Socratic philosophy: “In Socratic speech and thought lies forced renunciation, a renunciation without which there would be no Socratic philosophy. This arises only because Socrates does not get on in the realm of knowledge and takes flight into dialogue. Socratic philosophy has become dialogical in its essence because exploratory discovery seemed impossible.” Inspired by the philosopher Anaxagoras, Socrates originally took a special interest in the study of nature and, like the latter, grappled with the question of causes. However, he was unsettled, as Plato also relays in the dialogue Phaidon, because there were no clear answers. Human reason, on the other hand, through which everything we know about nature is mediated, could not explain Anaxagoras. Therefore, Socrates turned away from the search for causes and toward understanding based on language and thought, as Figal concludes.

The goal of the Socratic dialogue in the form handed down by Plato is the common insight into a matter on the basis of question and answer. Socrates did not accept rambling speeches about the object of investigation after that, but insisted on a direct answer to his question: “In the Socratic conversation the question has priority. The question contains two moments: it is an expression of the questioner”s ignorance and an appeal to the interviewee to answer or to admit his own ignorance. The answer provokes the next question, and in this way the dialogical inquiry gets underway.” By asking questions, then – and not by lecturing the interlocutor, as the sophists practiced toward their students – insightfulness was to be awakened, a method that Socrates – according to Plato – called maieutics: a kind of “spiritual obstetrics.” For the change of the previous attitude as a result of the intellectual debate depended on the insight itself being attained or “born”.

The progress of knowledge in the Socratic dialogues occurred in a characteristic gradation: In the first step, Socrates sought to make clear to the respective discussion partner that his way of life and way of thinking were inadequate. To show his fellow citizens how little they had thought about their own views and attitudes so far, he then confronted them with the nonsensical or unpleasant consequences that would result. According to the Platonic Apology, the Oracle of Delphi imposed on Socrates the testing of the knowledge of his fellow men. According to Wolfgang H. Pleger, Socratic dialogue thus always includes the three moments of examination of the other, self-examination, and factual examination. “The philosophical dialogue begun by Socrates is a zetetic, that is, investigative, procedure. The refutation, the elenchos (ἔλεγχος), inevitably happens alongside. It is not the motive.”

After this uncertainty, Socrates challenged his interlocutor to rethink. He steered the conversation to the question of what is essential about man, based on the subject under discussion, e.g. bravery, prudence, justice or virtue in general. Unless the interlocutors broke off the dialogue, they came to the conclusion that the soul as the actual self of man must be as good as possible and that this depends on the extent to which man does the morally good. What the good is, then, is to be found out.

For the dialogue partners, Plato regularly showed in the course of the investigation that Socrates, who nevertheless pretended not to know, soon revealed clearly more knowledge than they themselves possessed. At the beginning often in the role of the seemingly inquisitive student, who suggested the role of teacher to his counterpart, he proved to be clearly superior at the end.

Because of this approach, Socrates” initial position was often perceived as untrustworthy and insincere, as an expression of irony in the sense of dissimulation for the purpose of misleading. Döring nevertheless considers it uncertain that Socrates began to play ironically with his ignorance in the sense of deliberate deep imposture. He assumes like Figal in principle seriousness of the statement. But even if Socrates was not concerned with a public dismantling of his interlocutors, his action must have turned many of those he addressed against him, especially since his students also practiced this form of dialogue.

However, Martens rejects the idea of a uniform Socratic method as a philosophical-historical dogma going back to Plato”s student Aristotle, which says that Socrates only conducted “examining” conversations, but no “eristic” argumentative conversations or “didactic” doctrinal conversations. In contrast, according to Martens, Xenophon”s statement is true that Socrates adjusted the conduct of the conversation to the respective interlocutors, i.e. in the case of the Sophists to the refutation of their pretended knowledge (Socratic elenctic), but in the case of his old friend Kriton to a serious search for truth.

Another characteristic moment of Socratic conversation as presented in Plato is the fact that the course of inquiry often does not move in a straight line from the refutation of adopted opinions to a new horizon of knowledge. In Plato”s dialogue Theaetetus, for example, three definitions of knowledge are discussed and found wanting; the question of what knowledge is remains open. Sometimes it is not only the interlocutors who fall into perplexity, but also Socrates, who himself has no conclusive solution to offer. Thus, not infrequently, “confusion, wavering, amazement, aporia, breaking off of the conversation” appear.

The question of justice in the Socratic dialogue

A particularly broad spectrum of investigation is unfolded by both Plato and Xenophon in their Socratic dialogues devoted to the question of justice. Justice is not only examined as a personal virtue, but social and political dimensions of the topic are also addressed.

In the so-called Thrasymachus dialogue, the first book of Plato”s Politeia, there are three partners, one after the other, with whom Socrates investigates the question of what is just or what justice consists of. The conversation takes place in the presence of two of Plato”s brothers, Glaucon and Adeimantos, in the house of the rich Syracusan Kephalos, who has taken up residence in the Athenian port of Piraeus at the invitation of Pericles.

After introductory remarks about the relative advantages of old age, the householder Cephalus is supposed to tell Socrates what he values most about the wealth he has been granted. It is the associated possibility of not being indebted to anyone, Cephalus answers. This raises the question of justice for Socrates, and he raises the problem of whether it is fair to return weapons to a fellow citizen from whom one has borrowed them, even if he has meanwhile gone mad. Hardly, says Cephalus, who then withdraws and leaves the continuation of the conversation to his son Polemarchus.

Referring to the poet Simonides, Polemarchus says that it is just to give everyone what he is guilty of, not weapons to the insane, but good things to friends and evil things to enemies. This presupposes, Socrates objects, that one knows how to distinguish between good and evil. In the case of doctors, for example, it is clear in what they need expertise, but in what the righteous? In money matters, Polemarchus retorts, but cannot hold his own with it. With the argument that a real expert must not only know about the matter itself (the right handling of money), but also about its opposite (embezzlement), Socrates throws Polemarchus into confusion. In distinguishing between friends and enemies, Socrates adds, it is easy to make a mistake due to a lack of knowledge of human nature. Moreover, it is not the business of the just to harm anyone at all. With this negative finding, the investigation returns to its starting point. Socrates asks, “But since it has been shown that even this is not justice, nor the just, what else can anyone say it is?”

Now the sophist Thrasymachos, who has not yet had a chance to speak, intervenes. He declares everything that has been said so far to be idle chatter, criticizes Socrates for only questioning and refuting instead of developing a clear idea of his own, and offers to do this now in turn. With the support of the others present, Socrates accepts the offer and only humbly objects to Thrasymachus” reproaches that he cannot rush ahead with answers who does not know and does not pretend to know: “So it is far cheaper for you to talk, since you claim that you know and that you can present it.”

Thrasymachus then defines what is just as what is beneficial to the stronger and justifies this with the legislation in each of the different forms of government, which corresponds either to the interests of tyrants or those of aristocrats or those of democrats. In response to Socrates” question, Thrasymachus confirms that the obedience of the governed to the governors is also just. But by getting Thrasymachus to concede the fallibility of the rulers, Socrates succeeds in undermining the latter”s whole construct, for if the rulers err in what is proper for them, even the obedience of the ruled does not lead to justice: “Does it not then necessarily come out that it is just to do the opposite of what you say? For that which is unjust to the stronger is then commanded to be done by the weaker. – Yes by Zeus, O Socrates, said Polemarchus, this is quite evident.”

Thrasymachus, however, does not see himself convinced, but outwitted by the way he asks the question, and insists on his thesis. Using the example of the physician, however, Socrates shows him that a true administrator of one”s own profession is always oriented to the benefit of the other, here the sick person, and not to one”s own: thus also the capable governors are oriented to what is beneficial for the governed.

After Thrasymachus has also failed to show that the just man pays too little attention to his own advantage in order to achieve something in life, while the tyrant, who carries injustice to extremes on a grand scale, gains the highest happiness and prestige from it – that justice stands for naivety and simplicity, injustice for prudence – Socrates directs the conversation to the consideration of the balance of power between justice and injustice. There, too, it finally emerges against the view of Thrasymachus, injustice has a bad standing: unjust are at odds with each other and disintegrate with themselves, Socrates thinks, how are they supposed to get on in war or peace against a community in which the unity of the just prevails? Apart from that, for Socrates justice is also the prerequisite of individual well-being, of eudaimonia, because it has the same importance for the well-being of the soul as the eyes have for sight and the ears for hearing.

Thrasymachus finally agrees with the result of the discussion in everything. Socrates, however, regrets at the end that he, too, has not reached a result in the question of what constitutes the just in its essence, across all branches of the discussion.

In the dialogue on justice and self-knowledge handed down by Xenophon, Socrates endeavors to make contact with the still young Euthydemos, whom it urges onto the political stage. Before Euthydemos agrees to talk, he has already repeatedly drawn Socrates” ironic remarks about his inexperience and unwillingness to learn. When Socrates one day addresses him directly about his political ambitions and refers to justice as a qualifier, Euthydemos confirms that one cannot even be a good citizen without a sense of justice and that he himself possesses no less of it than anyone else.

Thereupon Socrates, Xenophon continues, begins to question him at length about the distinction between just and unjust actions. In the course of the conversation, it seems just to Euthydemos that a general plunders and robs the property of an unjust enemy state, just as he regards as just everything towards enemies that would be unjust towards friends. But even friends are not owed sincerity in every situation, as is shown by the example of the commander, who falsely announces the imminent arrival of confederates to his discouraged troops in order to strengthen their fighting morale. Socrates now poses the question to Euthydemos, who is already very insecure, whether an intentional or an unintentional false statement is the greater wrong, if friends are harmed by it. Euthydemos decides in favor of the intentional deception as the greater wrong, but is also refuted in this by Socrates: He who deceives in his own ignorance is obviously ignorant of the right way and in doubt without orientation. According to Xenophon, Euthydemos also sees himself in this situation: “Ah, best Socrates, by all the gods, I have put all my effort into studying philosophy, because I believed that this would train me in everything that a man who strives for higher things needs. Now I have to realize that with what I have learned so far, I am not even able to answer what is vital to know, and there is no other way that would lead me further! Can you imagine how despondent I am?”

Socrates takes this admission as an opportunity to refer to the oracle of Delphi and to the temple inscription: “Know thyself!” Euthydemos, who has already visited Delphi twice, confesses that the request has not occupied him in the long term, because he thought he already knew enough about himself. Socrates intervenes:

Euthydemos agrees, but this is not enough for Socrates. He wants to point out that self-knowledge brings the greatest advantages, but self-deception brings the worst disadvantages:

Correct self-assessment also forms the basis for the standing in which one is held by others and for successful cooperation with like-minded people. Those who do not have it usually go wrong and make a mockery of themselves.

Now Xenophon shows Euthydemos as an inquisitive student, who is urged by Socrates to take up self-exploration by taking care of the determination of the good in distinction from the bad. At first Euthydemos sees no difficulty in this; he lists health, wisdom, and happiness one after the other as characteristics of the good, but each time he has to accept Socrates” relativization: “Thus, dear Socrates, happiness is the least contested good” – “Unless someone, dear Euthydemos, builds it on doubtful goods.” Socrates then conveys to Euthydemos beauty, power, wealth, and public prestige as dubious goods in relation to happiness. Euthydemos admits to himself, “Yes truly, if I am not right even in praising happiness, then I must confess that I do not know what to ask of the gods.”

Only now Socrates directs the conversation to Euthydemos” main field of interest: the aspired leadership role as a politician in a democratic state. Socrates wants to know what Euthydemos can say about the nature of the people (demos). He knows about the poor and the rich, says Euthydemos, who counts only the poor among the people. “Who do you call rich, who poor?” asks Socrates. “He who does not possess the necessities of life I call poor; he whose possessions exceed these I call rich.” – “Have you ever made the observation that some who possess but little are content with what little they have, and even give of it, while others have not yet enough in a considerable fortune?”

Then it suddenly occurs to Euthydemos that some violent people commit injustice like the poorest of the poor, because they cannot manage with what belongs to them. Socrates concludes that tyrants must be counted among the people, but the poor, who know how to manage their possessions, must be counted among the rich. Euthydemos concludes the dialogue: “My poor judgment forces me to admit the conclusiveness of even this proof. I don”t know, perhaps it is best that I say nothing more; I am only in danger of being at the end of my wisdom within a short time.”

Finally, Xenophon mentions that many of those whom Socrates had similarly rebuked subsequently stayed away from him, but not Euthydemos, who henceforth believed that he could become a capable man only in Socrates” company.

Approach to the good

According to Plato”s Apology, Socrates developed the unstoppable core of his philosophical work to the jurors in the trial by announcing remonstrances to each of them in case of acquittal in a future encounter:

Only knowledge of the good serves one”s own best and enables one to do good, for according to Socrates” conviction, no one knowingly does evil. Socrates denied that anyone can act against his own better knowledge. He thus denied the possibility of “weakness of will,” which was later referred to by the technical term akrasia coined by Aristotle. This assertion belonged in the antiquity to the most well-known guiding principles of the doctrine attributed to Socrates. At the same time it is one of the so-called Socratic paradoxes, because the thesis does not seem to agree with the common experience of life. In this context, Socrates” claim of not knowing also appears paradoxical.

Martens differentiates the Socratic non-knowledge. According to this, it is first to be understood as a rejection of sophistical knowledge. In the knowledge examinations of politicians, craftsmen, and other fellow citizens, it also shows up as a delimiting knowledge, as a “rejection of a knowledge of the arete based on conventions”. In a third variant, it is a not-yet-knowledge that encourages further testing, and finally, it is demarcation from an evidential knowledge of the good life or of the right way to live. According to this, Socrates was convinced that “with the help of common rational reflection, one could go beyond a merely conventional and sophistical apparent knowledge at least to provisionally tenable insights.”

According to Döring, this apparent contradiction between insight and non-knowledge is resolved as follows: “When Socrates declares it impossible in principle for a human being to attain knowledge of what is good, pious, just, etc., he means a universally valid and infallible knowledge that provides immutable and unchallengeable norms for action. Such knowledge, in his view, is fundamentally denied to man. What man alone can attain is a partial and provisional knowledge which, however secure it may seem at the moment, nevertheless remains ever conscious that it may prove in retrospect to be in need of revision.” To strive for this imperfect knowledge in the hope of coming as near as possible to the perfected good is consequently the best thing that man can do for himself. The further he advances in this, the happier he will live.

Figal, on the other hand, interprets the question of the good as pointing beyond man. “In the question of the good lies actually the service to the Delphic god. The idea of the good is ultimately the philosophical meaning of the Delphic oracle.”

Last things

In the closing words, which Socrates addressed in court to the part of the jury that was favorable to him, according to Plato”s account, he justified the intrepidity and firmness with which he accepted the verdict, referring to his Daimonion, which had at no time warned him against any of his actions in connection with the trial. His statements about the imminent death express confidence:

According to Plato”s dialogue Phaidon, Socrates behaved no differently toward the friends who visited him on his last day in prison. Here the issue is trust in the philosophical logos “even in the face of the utterly unthinkable,” according to Figal; “and since the extreme situation only brings to light what is also otherwise true, this question is that of the trustworthiness of the philosophical logos in general. It becomes the ultimate challenge for Socrates to make a strong case for it.”

The question of what happens to the human soul at death was also discussed by Socrates in his last hours. Against its mortality speaks that it is bound to the life, life and death, however, exclude themselves mutually. However, it could disappear at the approach of the death just like destroy. Figal sees this as a confirmation of the open perspective on death taken by Socrates before the court and concludes: “Philosophy has no final reason into which it can go back, justifying itself. It proves to be abysmal when one asks for final grounds, and therefore, where its own possibility is at stake, it must be rhetorical in its own way: Its logos must be represented as the strongest, and this is best done with the persuasiveness of a philosophical life – by showing how one trusts the logos and engages in what the logos is supposed to represent.”

The exemplary philosophical-historical follow-up effect of Socrates” thought extends to two main areas: ancient civilization and modern Western philosophy, which began with the Renaissance. Since the Renaissance, public perception of the thinker”s personality and his work has been shaped primarily by the transfiguring image Plato paints of his revered teacher. In classical studies, however, it is emphasized that the source value of Plato”s literary works, like that of all other accounts, is consistently problematic. Therefore, a sharp distinction is made between the “historical Socrates” and the divergent portrayals of Socrates by Plato, Xenophon, and other ancient reporters. The history of the aftermath of Socrates is the history of the reception of these partly idealizing and legendary traditions. Whether it is at all possible to reconstruct the philosophical and political views of the historical Socrates is highly disputed in research.

The “little Socratics” and the great schools of antiquity

Ancient literature tells of numerous friends and students of Socrates. Seven of them made a name for themselves as philosophers: Plato, Xenophon, Antisthenes, Aristipp, Euclid of Megara, Aeschines, and Phaidon of Elis, known as the title character of a Platonic dialogue. Three of these students of Socrates – Plato, Antisthenes and Aristipp – became founders of important schools themselves. With his literary and philosophical greatness, Plato so clearly outshines the other continuators of the Socratic tradition in the judgment of posterity that they are usually spoken of as the “little Socratics”. To present their views, the Socratics liked to use the form of the “Socratic dialogue,” a fictional, literary conversation in which the figure of Socrates plays a decisive role.

Antisthenes is considered the most prominent Socratic of the first decade after the master”s death. He took up the Socratic ideal of the greatest possible unpretentiousness with regard to the external circumstances of life and made it the distinctive feature of his direction. Like Socrates, he placed the knowledge and realization of the right way of life at the center of his efforts. He considered any scholarship not aimed at this to be superfluous. While he shared the Socratic conviction that virtue was sufficient for happiness in life, he did not adopt Socrates” thesis that anyone who recognized the good necessarily lived and acted well. Rather, in the opinion of Antisthenes, in addition to knowledge of the good, willpower such as that demonstrated by Socrates in enduring hardships is absolutely necessary. Such strength is to be attained by purposeful practice of undemandingness. Therefore one should expose oneself to exertion and toil. The only student of Antisthenes known by name, Diogenes of Sinope, made this demand, which aimed at the greatest possible self-sufficiency, the core of his philosophizing. It became the demonstrative main characteristic of the Cynics, who followed the example of Diogenes.

Aristipp and the school of the Cyrenaics initiated by him took a different path. Although they adopted the general principle of the Socratics that one should concentrate on the specific realization of the right way of life and that the preservation of inner independence in all circumstances was important, they considered the pleasure conveyed by the body as the highest good and therefore affirmed wealth and luxury.

Euclid of Megara primarily took up the question of the good posed by Socrates and emphasized its unity. In the doctrine of the good he seems to have followed Socrates to a large extent, but he rejected the argumentation with analogies preferred by his master as not conclusive.

The great schools of philosophy, which took shape in the 4th and early 3rd centuries BC, judged the legacy of Socraticism very differently. In the Platonic Academy and in the Stoa, Socrates was held in the highest esteem as a leading figure. The Stoics saw in him the paragon par excellence, since in his life he had realized the concordance of knowledge, word and deed with unique consistency, especially through his exemplary control of affect. For them he was not an ironic and skeptical seeker of wisdom, but a consummate sage. Detached, on the other hand, was the attitude of Aristotle and his school, the Peripatetic. The Peripatetics cultivated scholarship and were interested in Socratics almost only from the point of view of the history of philosophy. From Aristotle comes the since then common statement that Socrates had completely turned away from natural philosophy and inaugurated a new epoch in the history of philosophy, which was characterized by orientation towards ethics. The peripatetic Aristoxenos wrote a biography of Socrates in which he drew a negative picture of the thinker. He referred to information from his father, who had known Socrates personally. The attitude of the Epicureans was also negative. Even the founder of the school, Epicurus, rebuked Socratic irony, which he apparently disapproved of as an expression of arrogance, and his students polemicized fiercely against Socrates, accusing him of being dishonest.

A momentous turn occurred in the Academy in the sixties of the 3rd century BC, when Plato”s school turned to “academic skepticism.” With this move, the scholarch Arkesilaos gave the Academy a completely new direction, drawing on Socrates. The starting point of his epistemology was the Socratic question of the attainability of certain knowledge. Following Socrates” example, Arkesilaos argued against foreign views with the aim of shaking questionable certainties. He wanted to show that the alleged knowledge of the representatives of dogmatic assertions in reality proceeded from unproven assumptions and were therefore mere opinions. With his methodological doubt he drew a radical consequence from the Socratic demand to unmask apparent knowledge. His core thesis was that the claim to have acquired certain knowledge was in principle unverifiable. This skepticism was further developed by the successors of Arcesilaos and remained the authoritative concept for the academy until its demise in the 1st century BC.

In the Roman imperial period, Stoics and Platonists intensively returned to Socrates and his philosophy. The Stoic Seneca in particular tirelessly presented the example of the famous Athenian to his contemporaries. When Seneca had to take his own life on the orders of Emperor Nero, he arranged his death in imitation of the classical Greek model, according to Tacitus” account. Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the last important philosopher of the Stoa, also referred to Socrates as a model. According to Marcus Aurelius” advice, one should turn to the spirit that dwells in man and “has departed, as Socrates said, from the sensual passions, has subordinated itself to the gods, and is primarily concerned with human beings.”

The figure of Socrates receded into the background among the Neoplatonists, whose teachings decisively determined the philosophical discourse of late antiquity. However, the Socratic call to self-knowledge and self-formation continued to form the starting point and a central element of philosophizing. In this period, in which the need for redemption of man, cut off from the divine realm, was strongly emphasized, Socrates appeared as a gift of God. According to the account of the Neoplatonist Hermeias of Alexandria, he was an envoy from the world of the gods, sent as a benefactor to mankind so that they would turn to philosophy.

A contemporary adversarial view

Original texts of Socrates” accusers have not survived, but a lost polemic against him, the Indictment of Socrates written by the rhetor Polycrates, can be partially reconstructed on the basis of indirect tradition. It was written in the early 4th century BC and was later widely regarded as a speech actually delivered at the trial. It is unclear whether Polycrates regarded the writing only as a sophistical exercise in style or wanted to seriously defame the philosopher. In any case, he judged from the perspective of a supporter of Athenian democracy, which had been restored in 403 BC. In addition to accusations of disrupting religion and family cohesion, the rhetor also made political accusations. He placed Socrates close to the oligarchic circles responsible for the overthrown reign of terror of the Thirty.

Legend formation and literary reception

From the 4th century BC, a legend spread according to which Xanthippe was not the only wife of Socrates. It was said that he had had two wives. According to a version attested only in the Roman imperial period, both lived in his house and quarreled constantly among themselves and with him, but he did not take either of them seriously and laughed at them. It was also said that the quarrelsome Xanthippe poured dirty water over him.

The satirist Lucian, writing in the 2nd century, mocked Socrates in his Conversations with the Dead. There, the underworld dog Kerberos recounts as an eyewitness how Socrates descended into the realm of the dead. According to his account, the philosopher only appeared equanimous at first, when he wanted to impress the audience with his imperturbability. But then, when he bent down into the abyss and saw the darkness and was pulled in by Kerberos” foot, he howled like a little child.

In the 3rd century, the writer Aelian presented an imaginative account of the circumstances that led to the execution of Socrates. His account is worthless as a source for the historical events, but it shows the colportages with which the tradition was embellished and shaped into a legend in the Roman imperial period. According to the anecdotal account of Aelian, Anytos, one of Socrates” enemies, planned the prosecution with some followers. However, because of influential friends of the philosopher, there was a danger of failing with it and then being punished themselves because of false accusation. Therefore, the first thing they wanted to do was to stir up public opinion against him. Aristophanes, who was one of the buffoons criticized by Socrates, was paid – “conscienceless and needy as he was” – for making Socrates a character in the comedy The Clouds. After initial astonishment, mockery and schadenfreude towards the philosopher prevailed among the audience. The philosopher was ridiculed and portrayed as a sophist chatterbox who introduced new kinds of demons, despised the gods, and taught this to his students as well. Socrates, however, even among the spectators of the performance, demonstratively rose to be known to all, and exposed himself to the scorn of Aristophanes and the Athenians throughout the play. – In this anecdote Socrates appears as a stoic sage. The accusation against him is interwoven with the only performance of Clouds that had taken place about a quarter of a century earlier.

Church Fathers

In ancient Christianity, Socrates” trial and death formed a common parallel to the crucifixion of Jesus, which was problematic, however, because it could endanger the uniqueness of Christ. The philosopher was seen as a religious educator, especially because of his Christian adaptation of the call to right – in the Christian sense: humble – self-knowledge. An important consideration was also the parallel between Socrates, who was unjustly persecuted on religious grounds and remained steadfast in the face of death, and the Christian witnesses to the faith who fell victim to the persecutions of Christians in the Roman Empire. Justin Martyr, a 2nd century apologist and church father, portrayed Socrates as a forerunner of the Christian martyrs who had attained a limited knowledge of the Logos to be equated with Christ. He had tried to dissuade people from idolatry and had urged them to search for the unknown true God. Like the Christians, he had been accused of innovating in religion and not believing in the state-approved gods. – As an overcomer of polytheism and pioneer of Christianity, Socrates appears in Clement of Alexandria. The late antique church father Augustine praised the philosopher as an exposer of the ignorance of the time.

In addition to such positive assessments, however, strongly derogatory ones were also put forward. The judgment of the church fathers John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria and Theodoret was decidedly negative. Among other things, the legend of the two quarrelsome wives was used to ridicule the philosopher.

The church writers judged the Daimonion differently. Clement of Alexandria thought that it was the philosopher”s guardian angel. Other theologians, especially Tertullian, came to a negative assessment. Tertullian, who also made disparaging remarks about Socrates and accused him of being motivated by a desire for fame, saw an evil demon in the daimonion.

Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, most of the ancient sources on Socrates were lost in the West. Nevertheless, the famous ethicist was given a respectable place alongside Plato and Aristotle in the Latin-speaking scholarly world. He was often pictured together with Plato. The illustrations in manuscripts always show him as a dignified man instructing his students or writing down a text. and Hugo of St. Victor saw Socrates as the founder and protagonist of pagan ethics.

Although Notker Labeo denied the pagan philosopher the ability to know the highest good and to find the true source of bliss, as a rule the medieval authors expressed themselves appreciatively. John of Salisbury glorified the “cheerful Socrates” as the one whom no violence could harm. Peter Alfonsi, in his Disciplina clericalis, praised him as a warner against religious hypocrisy. According to the Summa Quoniam homines of Alanus ab Insulis, Socrates told the king of Athens that there was only one God, the creator of heaven and earth.

Large late medieval compilations offered collections of material to the educated reading public. Vincent of Beauvais compiled encyclopedic source texts on Socrates. Compiled in the early 14th century and wrongly attributed to Walter Burley, the Liber de vita et moribus philosophorum, a doxographic manual extraordinarily popular in the late Middle Ages, contains an extensive chapter on Socrates.

Among the admirers of Socrates in the 14th century was the influential humanist Francesco Petrarch. He considered him the wisest of all philosophers and the embodiment of the four cardinal virtues.

In the 15th century, the basis of knowledge about Socrates was greatly broadened by the evaluation of manuscript finds and the translation activity of the humanists. Plato”s dialogues and his Apology, works of Xenophon, as well as the biographical-doxographic account in Diogenes Laertios were made accessible to a broad educated public through translation from Greek into Latin. The leading Florentine politicians Coluccio Salutati and Leonardo Bruni regarded the ancient thinker as an important authority and incorporated the Socratic tradition into their humanist educational program. Bruni”s student Giannozzo Manetti relied on newly discovered source material when he wrote the first biography of Socrates since antiquity in 1440. His work was widely read and had a lasting impact on the image of Socrates. Manetti described the philosopher primarily as a model republican-minded citizen and interpreted the Daimonion as an angel. His selection and presentation of the source material aimed to paint the ideal image of a philosopher according to humanistic criteria and to present Socratic practice-based ethics to the reader as a superior alternative to the scholastic school philosophy of the time.

Nikolaus von Kues took up the Socratic ignorance with his concept of “learned ignorance”. The title of his 1449 vindication treatise Apologia doctae ignorantiae (Defense of Learned Ignorance) is an allusion to Socrates” Apology, the defense speech in court. One of Nicholas” literary characters, the “layman,” is an embodiment of the Socrates figure.

Among medieval Arabic-speaking philosophers and theologians, Socrates was known as Suqrāṭ. He was considered a disciple of Pythagoras. On the positive side, he was noted to have been a monotheist and an eminent ascetic and to have opposed the cult of the gods by the Greeks. In the 9th century, the philosopher al-Kindī composed five writings on Suqrāṭ, only one of which has survived. The Persian philosopher ar-Rāzī, who was active in the late 8th and early 9th centuries, received the tradition from antiquity particularly intensively; he took the moderate asceticism of the Suqrāṭ as his model. Most Arabic collections of sayings and doxographies contain sections devoted to the famous Athenian. Biographical accounts also found considerable circulation. Socrates” image was strongly influenced by the rich anecdotal material compiled in collections of narrative material, which was considered authentic.

Early modern times

The humanists of the 16th century held the seriousness of ethical research and action embodied by Socrates in high esteem. Their admiration of the ancient role model found its most succinct expression in the oft-quoted exclamation, “Saint Socrates, pray for us!” Erasmus formulated this “prayer,” provocative to contemporary readers, but it was not entirely serious, for he remarked on it, qualifyingly, that he could only with difficulty restrain himself from uttering it. Like numerous humanists, Erasmus was of the opinion that Socrates had anticipated Christian values with his way of life.

Girolamo Cardano, in his De Socratis studio, was scathingly critical of the famous thinker, accusing him of dishonesty, ignorance, and an anti-educational attitude.

Michel de Montaigne saw Socrates” life and death as an exemplary model and considered himself his student. He appreciated the Athenian”s simple humanity and unpretentiousness as well as his skepticism toward dogmatic assertions and confession of ignorance. The ideal of natural virtue, realized without effort, to which Montaigne aspired, he believed to be embodied in Socrates. His portrait of Socrates represents his own idea of a successful life.

In 1650, a new biography of Socrates, La vie de Socrate, written by the Greek scholar François Charpentier, was published and became one of the most influential accounts for the following decades.

In the era of the Enlightenment, the admiring reception of Socrates” exemplary character continued. He was now regarded as a champion of reason, a virtuous educator of the people, and a fighter against narrow-minded religious dogmatism. Anticlerical Enlightenment thinkers glorified him as the adversary of a malevolent priesthood living on superstition. Comparisons of his persecution with current conflicts were obvious. Among the many disseminators of the Enlightenment image of Socrates were Christian Thomasius (1655-1728), who translated Charpentier”s work into German, the deist Anthony Collins (1676-1729), who saw in the Athenian philosopher the first prominent “freethinker,” and Denis Diderot (1713-1784), who contributed the admiring article on Socratic philosophy to the Encyclopédie. The questions to what extent Socrates had similarities with Christ and whether he could be credited with a natural knowledge of God were controversially discussed. In this context, the struggle between the Enlightenment thinkers and their conservative, church-oriented opponents formed the ever-present frame of reference that determined the opposing assessments of historical events. In the 18th century, the influence of the ancient model reached its greatest intensity.

In 1750, Rousseau invoked Socrates as a witness for his critique of civilization: “Socrates praises ignorance! Do you think that our scientists and artists would persuade him to change his view if he rose among us? No, gentlemen, this just man would continue to despise our vain sciences.” In Rousseau”s opinion, a resurrected Socrates, like the historical one, would leave his students “only the example and memory of his virtue” instead of books and precepts. However, Rousseau criticized that Socrates had remained a mere theorist and had not risen to a political feat.

The Christian philosopher Johann Georg Hamann, whose Sokratische Denkwürdigkeiten appeared in 1759, criticized the widespread Enlightenment images of Socrates, which he considered ossified. In reality, Socrates was neither a rationalist nor a Christian avant la lettre. Hamann countered such interpretations with the demand to grasp the ancient thinker as a living human being. According to his conviction, one can only understand the ingenious philosopher if one feels his spirit within oneself and lives up to it. Against the common glorification of reason, Hamann asserted Socratic ignorance.

Kant appreciated the Socratic knowledge of not-knowing and the “entirely new practical direction” that Socrates had given to Greek philosophy. Moreover, he had achieved an extraordinary congruence of life and doctrine; he had been “almost among all men the only one whose conduct comes closest to the idea of a sage.” In Kant”s judgment, Socrates” “learned” ignorance was a “praiseworthy” one in contrast to the “common” one, because it was based on the fact that he had grasped the boundary between the realms of the knowable and the unknowable. Such knowledge of one”s own ignorance “thus presupposes science and at the same time makes one humble,” while “imaginary knowledge inflates.” The great merit of Socrates, in Kant”s view, is the unmasking of imaginary knowledge.

In the pedagogy of the Enlightenment, the Socratic method of imparting knowledge was intensively discussed. It was considered progressive in this epoch, in which educational science was born, and was praised and recommended, but also criticized. Proponents stylized it as the ideal model of pedagogical practice. The goal of the Socratic pedagogues was to replace mechanical memorization with the promotion of the inner active appropriation of the subject matter. Kant recommended the Socratic method for school instruction, although he thought it was “admittedly somewhat slow,” difficult to apply in group instruction, and not suitable for all subject matter. Criticism was voiced by Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who considered “Socratizing” to be a mere fad. Pestalozzi found that it had been dreamed of to draw out the minds of children and to produce miracles out of nothing. He had not found the ability for a real Socratic dialogue in any of his contemporaries.

In his youth, Christoph Martin Wieland was enthusiastic about Socrates, whose role as a popular educator he himself wanted to take over for his time. He published his literary dialogue Conversation of Socrates with Timoclea, Of Apparent and True Beauty in 1756. For Wieland, Socrates was a cultivated, gallant, self-confident, skillfully disputing mocker, aesthete, and artist of life, and at the same time the embodiment of humanity, the approach to the ideal of human perfection.

In Francesco Griselini”s 1755 tragicomedy Socrate filosofo sapientissimo, the hetaera Timandra is bribed by Meletos; she is supposed to seduce Socrates so that an intrigue against the philosopher will succeed in turning Alcibiades against him. The scheme fails, however, because of the superiority of Socrates, who in turn dissuades Timandra from her way of life.

Voltaire, considered by some of his admirers to be the new Socrates, published the satirical drama Socrate in 1759, enriched with comic elements. Here Socrates falls victim to the vindictiveness of the priest Anitus, to whom he has refused his foster daughter. The offended Anitus equates his interests with those of the gods. Socrates is the hero of the play, but his figure is drawn with ironic detachment. The main concern of the anticlerical author is to ridicule bigoted hypocrisy and a corrupt judiciary.

Jean-Marie Collot d”Herbois, a notable politician of the French Revolution, decided to adapt the tragic material into comedy form. His play Le procès de Socrate premiered in Paris in 1790. Here Socrates is a precursor of Enlightenment deism.

Friedrich Hölderlin, in his ode Socrates and Alcibiades, published in 1798, asked why Socrates loved the youth Alcibiades as if he were a god, and gave the answer: “He who thought the deepest loves the liveliest.”

The most famous modern image of Socrates is his depiction in Raphael”s fresco The School of Athens (1510-1511), where he is seen in conversation with the young Xenophon.

Scenes in prison, especially the death scene, were a popular subject of painting in the 17th and 18th centuries, especially in France. The most famous execution of the death scene is the 1787 oil painting by Jacques-Louis David, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Other paintings depicting this motif are by Benjamin West (1756), Gianbettino Cignaroli (1759), Gaetano Gandolfi (1782), and Pierre Peyron (1787).

An erotic theme was a popular choice in the late 18th and early 19th centuries: Socrates as the admonisher who rescues Alcibiades from a sexual entanglement. Socrates” bravery in battle and in the face of death is the subject of a group of reliefs by Antonio Canova from the late 18th century.

Early modern opera took up the comedy of the ancient legend of Socrates” two wives. Nicolò Minato exploited the bigamy motif in a libretto set to music by Antonio Draghi. The premiere of this scherzo drammatico, entitled La patienza di Socrate con due moglie, took place in 1680 at the imperial ballroom in Prague. Later the libretto was translated into German and adapted by Johann Ulrich von König. Georg Philipp Telemann used it in this version for his musical comedy Der geduldige Sokrates, which premiered in Hamburg in 1721 and was a great success.


In his 1815 treatise Über den Werth des Sokrates als Philosophen (On the Value of Socrates as a Philosopher), Friedrich Schleiermacher expressed his astonishment that “the drawing that one tends to make of this strange man” does not correspond to the historical significance attributed to him as the initiator of a new epoch in the history of philosophy. In the tradition Socrates appears as a “virtuoso of common sense”; his thoughts are of such a kind that every healthy mind must fall for them by itself. Moreover, the restriction to ethical questions attributed to Socrates was a one-sidedness detrimental to the development of philosophy. Seen in this light, Socrates did not belong in the history of philosophy, but at most in that of general education. But then his enormous influence would be inexplicable. Therefore, one has to assume that he has done something more important than the sources indicate. That is the introduction of dialectics, as whose real originator he is to be regarded.

For Hegel Socrates is a world-historical person. His work marks a main turning point of the spirit in itself: the beginning of the knowledge of consciousness of itself as such. He is the “inventor” of morality as distinct from morality, for with him the insight that brings about moral action stands higher than custom and fatherland. Morality, unlike traditional, unbiased morality, is associated with reflection. The historical consequences of this innovation were serious. Through the inner world of subjectivity that thus opened up, a break with reality occurred: No longer the state, but the world of thought appeared as the true home. Thus a revolutionary principle was introduced in Athens. Therefore, from Hegel”s point of view, the death sentence is understandable, because Socrates damaged the relationship between the generations with his influence on the youth and endangered the welfare of the state. According to Hegel”s understanding of the state, it is up to the state to intervene against such activities. On the other hand, for Hegel, Socrates was also in the right, because he was a tool of the world spirit, which used him to elevate itself to a higher consciousness. Accordingly, it was an insoluble tragic conflict between representatives of legitimate concerns.

For Schelling, Socrates was the man who, through his dialectic, “created space for free life, free differentiated multiplicity” and “led philosophy out of the narrowness of merely substantial and unfree knowledge into the breadth and freedom of intelligible, differentiating, expository knowledge”. However, he “could only appear to his time as a spirit confusing it”.

Kierkegaard saw in Socrates the only philosopher of the past who was related to him in spirit. In the Socratic attitude he appreciated, besides the emphasis on the difference between knowing and not knowing, the indissoluble mixture of jest and seriousness, which manifests itself as ambiguity and apparent madness, as well as the combination of self-assurance and modesty. For Kierkegaard, a contrast between Socrates and Plato lies in the fact that Socrates held on to uncertainty, while Plato built an abstract edifice of thought. In the judgment of the Danish philosopher, Socratic ignorance represents the superior attitude. It is based on the subject conceiving himself as an existing individual and recognizing that truth does not lie in abstract propositions that exist independently of a conscious subject: “Socrates” infinite merit is precisely to be an existing thinker, not a speculator who forgets what existing is.”

John Stuart Mill expressed his enthusiasm for Socrates in his 1859 study On Liberty. In his view, humanity can hardly be reminded often enough that this man existed. For Mill, Socrates was the head and pattern of all subsequent teachers of virtue, a master whose fame continues to grow after more than two millennia. Mill thought that Socratic dialectic, a negative discussion of the great questions of philosophy and life, was underestimated in modern times. In his judgment, the educational methods of his own time contained nothing that could even somewhat take the place of the Socratic method. Without systematic training in dialectics, there would be few significant thinkers and a low average of cognitive ability outside the mathematical and scientific realm.

Nietzsche stated that the appearance of Socrates marked a turning point in world history. His relationship to the initiator of this turning point was ambivalent. On various occasions, Nietzsche expressed himself appreciatively, and in 1875 he wrote: “Socrates, just to confess it, is so close to me that I almost always fight a battle with him.” On the other hand, he described and evaluated the turn decidedly negatively. Socrates had brought into the world the delusion that thought reached into the deepest abysses of being and could not only recognize it but even correct it. He had made a tyrant out of reason. Nietzsche considered the Socratic idea that man with his reason could rise above everything and improve the world as megalomania. While in all productive people instinct is the creative force and consciousness is critical and admonishing, Socrates made consciousness the creator and instinct the critic. Nietzsche saw a monstrosity in this. He lamented the impoverishment of life that Socrates had caused by popularizing the type of the theoretical man. In doing so, he had initiated a process of decadence. Nietzsche thought to have been the first to recognize this. He summarized his assessment of the effects in five points: Socrates had destroyed the impartiality of ethical judgment, destroyed science, had no sense of art, torn the individual out of historical association, and promoted garrulity.

In 1883, Wilhelm Dilthey emphasized as a special achievement of Socrates that he “examined the existing science for its legal ground” and proved that “a science did not yet exist, in any field”. For Dilthey, Socrates was a “pedagogical genius” unique in antiquity who raised a revolutionary demand: “What the good, the law and the task of the individual is, should no longer be determined for the individual by an education from the traditions of the whole: from his own moral consciousness he should develop what is law for him.”

According to the description of Jacob Burckhardt, Socrates was an “incomparable original figure” in whom the free personality was “characterized in the most sublime way”, and his activity was the greatest popularization of thinking about general things that has ever been attempted. Through him knowledge, will and faith entered into a connection as never before. Moreover, he was the most dutiful citizen. In spite of these merits, however, Burckhardt was very sympathetic to the philosopher”s opponents. He thought that one should not be in the least surprised at the hostility that was shown to the superior discussant. According to Burckhardt”s interpretation, there existed among the Athenians a boundless antipathy towards Socrates, which eventually led to the death sentence. His ironic style had to be condescending, and his habit of ridiculing inferior interlocutors before a youthful audience inevitably earned him much enmity. After all, he had turned everyone against him, and except for his small following, no one wanted to stand up for him.

In Britain in the early 20th century, Alfred Edward Taylor endeavored to rank Socrates among the weighty representatives of the idealism he himself espoused. He particularly appreciated the combination of religious interpretation of the world with scientific striving for knowledge, which he attributed to the Greek thinker. According to Taylor”s interpretation of historical events, Socrates took up a religious impulse of the Pythagoreans and thus appeared as an innovator in this field in Athens, which ultimately became his undoing.

According to the interpretation of Edmund Husserl (192324), Socrates recognized the problems lightly dismissed by the sophists as problems of destiny for humanity on its way to genuine humanity. The philosophical pioneer interpreted the truly satisfying life as a life of pure reason, in which one, in tireless self-reflection and radical accountability, critiques one”s life goals, life paths, and respective means. Thus one undergoes a process of cognition which, as a methodical decline to perfect evidence, makes possible genuine knowledge and, at the same time, virtue and bliss. The focus of interest is the basic opposition between unclear opinion and evidence. Socrates was the first to recognize the necessity of a universal method of reason, whose basic sense he grasped as intuitive and a priori critique of reason.

Appreciatively, but also critically, José Ortega y Gasset expressed himself in 1923 in his essay El tema de nuestro tiempo (The task of our time). According to him, Socrates discovered reason, and one cannot speak meaningfully about the tasks of contemporary man until one has become fully aware of the significance of this discovery, for it “contains the key to European history.” The enthusiasm about the newly opened spiritual universe led to an effort to suppress spontaneous life and to replace it by pure reason. Thus “Socratism” produced a double life in which what man is not spontaneously takes the place of what he is in reality, namely his spontaneity. This is the sense of Socratic irony, which replaces a primary movement with a reflected secondary one. For Ortega, this is a mistake, albeit a fruitful one, because the “culture of the abstract intellect is not a new life in relation to the spontaneous one, it is not enough for itself and cannot foresee from that one”, rather it must feed itself from the “sea of original life forces”. Although – according to Ortega – the discovery of Socrates is an “eternal achievement”, it needs correction, since Socratism does not know the limits of reason, or at least does not draw the right conclusions from them.

In further essays in 1927, Ortega again illuminated an aspect of Socratic thought that he considered problematic. In his impression, in the pre-Socratic period there was a balanced relationship between the outwardly directed inquisitiveness and the inwardly directed pursuit of bliss. This changed with Socrates, who was not inquisitive, but turned “his back to the universe, but his face to himself.” Socrates had “all the characteristics of the neurasthenic”, he was the prey of strange bodily sensations, heard inner voices. Probably, “the perception of the internal body, caused by physiological anomalies, was the great master” that taught this man to reverse the spontaneous direction of his attention, to turn to his own inner self instead of the environment and to immerse himself in himself. But the price for this was high: the one-sided concentration on ethical problems destroyed the Socratics” impartiality, certainty of life, and urge to explore. On the basis of these findings, Ortega came to the conclusion that the accusation against Socrates of corrupting the youth was legally groundless, but justified “from the historical point of view.

Leo Strauss dealt intensively with Socraticism, especially with Xenophon”s Socratic works. He saw in Socrates the founder of political philosophy and in Xenophon an outstandingly qualified interpreter. According to the manuscript of a lecture given by Strauss in 1931, there is no teaching of Socrates, because he could not teach, but only ask, and that without knowing himself what the others did not know. He wanted to remain in the question because “it depends on the questioning; because a life that is not questioning is not a life worthy of a human being.” This is not a self-questioning and self-examination of a solitary thinker, but always a philosophizing with others, a “asking together,” since the Socratic philosopher “answers” himself in the original sense and this can only be done before a person. For Strauss, Socrates” questioning refers to right living together and thus to the state. It is “essentially political.

In 1944, Werner Jaeger praised Socrates as “one of the imperishable figures of history who have become a symbol” and “the most powerful educational phenomenon in the history of the Occident.” He stands, he said, at the center of the history of the self-formation of Greek man. Through Socraticism, the concept of self-mastery had become a central idea of ethical culture. Jaeger”s explanation for the discrepancies between the different traditions and images of Socrates is that Socrates “still united opposites that were already pushing for divorce at that time or soon after his time.”

Karl Popper, who described himself in his autobiography as a “disciple of Socrates,” presented the historical Socrates in the first volume of his work The Open Society and its Enemies, published in 1945, as the champion of the idea of free man, which he had made a living reality. This ideal, based on humanitarian principles and realized in an “open society,” Plato had betrayed by turning to a totalitarian political program. In his dialogues, in which Socrates appears as the main character, Plato put views into his teacher”s mouth that the latter in no way held. Nevertheless, the real attitude of the historical Socrates, who was a good democrat, can be recognized on the basis of Plato”s texts, which are only partially falsified.

Romano Guardini wrote in the preface to his monograph The Death of Socrates that the special quality of this historical figure was that he was “unmistakably himself and yet represented something generally valid. Among the rare phenomena of this kind, Socrates is one of the strongest.

In 1954, Hannah Arendt dealt with Socrates in one of her lectures on philosophy and politics. For Arendt, it is “more than likely” that this thinker was the first to systematically apply the principle of dialegesthai – of talking through a matter together. According to her, it was a matter of grasping the world as it opens up to the participants: “The assumption was that the world opens up differently to each person, depending on his position in it, and that the ”sameness” of the world, its commonality (koinon, as the Greeks said: common to all), its objectivity (as we would say from the subjective point of view of modern philosophy) results from the fact that one and the same world opens up differently to each Socrates had always had to begin by asking questions, since he had not been able to know in advance how things would appear to someone else. The Socratic “midwifery” (maieutics) presents itself to Hannah Arendt as a political activity, as “an exchange (in principle on the basis of strict egalitarianism), the fruits of which could not be judged by the fact that one had to arrive at the result of this or that truth”. Socrates had tried to make friends out of the citizens of Athens. In the exchange of the friends it comes to the approximation of the by nature different people. Friendship, he said, produces community, not among equals, but among equal partners in a common world. “The political element of friendship lies,” Arendt interpreted, “in the fact that in a truthful dialogue each of the friends can grasp the truth that lies in the opinion of the other.” The most important virtue of a statesman, then, is to understand the greatest possible number and the most diverse kinds of individual realities of the citizens and “to mediate between the citizens with their opinions communicatively in such a way that the commonality of the world becomes recognizable.” Socrates apparently saw the political function of the philosopher as helping to establish such a common world, “built on a kind of friendship in which no rule is necessary.”

Karl Jaspers treats Socrates in his 1957 textbook and reader The Great Philosophers in the section on the “four authoritative men” who had “a historical impact of incomparable scope and depth.” For Jaspers, these are, in addition to Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, and Jesus. Regarding the reception, Jaspers states that Socrates “became, as it were, the place into which times and people formed what was their own concern”: some made of him a God-fearing humble Christian, others the self-confident man of reason or a genial but demonic personality or the herald of humanity. But Jaspers” finding is that “he was none of these.” Rather, he was the founder of a new way of thinking that “does not allow man to close himself off,” that opens up and demands danger in openness. Socrates rejected – according to Jaspers – discipleship and therefore tried “to neutralize the superiority of his being through self-irony.” In his sphere of activity “there is free self-conviction, not confession.” On the lasting significance, Jaspers remarks: “To have Socrates before one”s eyes is one of the indispensable prerequisites of our philosophizing.”

Jacques Derrida, in his study La pharmacie de Plato (1972), addresses the ambiguity of the Greek word pharmakon, which means both poison and drug and remedy. He describes Socrates as a pharmakeus, a master in the use of such remedies. For Derrida, Socratic speech has in common with snake venom that both “penetrate the most hidden interiority of the soul and body in order to seize it.” The interlocutor is first confused and paralyzed by the “poison” of aporia – as described in Plato”s dialogue Menon – but then the power of this pharmakon is “reversed” in contact with another pharmakon, an antidote. The antidote is the dialectic.

In 1984, in lectures at the Collège de France in which he dealt with “speaking the truth,” Michel Foucault addressed the role of Socrates, whom he characterized as a parrhesiast. By parrhesia, Foucault understood the courage to speak the whole truth undisguised, even though in the given situation this is associated with risk for the speaker and in some cases life-threatening. In Foucault”s terminology, the parrhesiast differs from the other truth-speakers: he is the one who speaks the dangerous truth bluntly in his own name, in contrast to the prophet who appears in the name of another, as well as to the sage who holds back and remains silent or speaks in riddles, and to the teacher who passes on received knowledge without risk. For Foucault, Socrates is characterized by the fact that while he is a parrhesiast, he is also in a constant and essential relationship with the other three modalities of truth-speaking. He represents a philosophical parrhesia distinct from the political one, whose concern is for himself and for all others. Its constant preoccupation is to teach people to care for themselves. By the central concept of care is meant the remembrance of oneself as opposed to self-forgetfulness, and care as opposed to carelessness.

In his Socrates monograph published in 2006, Günter Figal emphasizes the timeless topicality of Socratic philosophizing: “Socrates” thinking stands between not-more and not-yet; it remains related to what it is made of and has not yet formed itself into an unquestionable shape, calmed in itself. Thus in Socrates the origin of philosophy is embodied. This origin is not a historical beginning. Because philosophy consists essentially in questioning, it does not leave its origin behind; whoever philosophizes always experiences the loss of self-evidence and tries to find his way to explicit understanding. For Sören Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, but also for Karl Popper, philosophy itself is present in the figure of Socrates; Socrates is for them the figure of philosophy in general, the archetype of the philosopher.”

Alphonse de Lamartine published his poem La mort de Socrate (The Death of Socrates) in 1823, in which he treated the subject with a Christian accent.

Robert Hamerling”s three-volume novel Aspasia (1876) addresses the tension between an ethical and an aesthetic ideal. According to a note by the author, Aspasia is here “the representative of the Greek spirit,” for she “lives to the beautiful,” while in Socrates the decay of the Greek world is revealed, for “here the beautiful ends and the good begins.” In the novel, the ugly Socrates, whose love for Aspasia remains unrequited, makes a virtue of necessity and seeks an ideal of life that is compatible with his unattractiveness. His brooding disrupts the freshness and harmony of Greek life.

August Strindberg worked on a trilogy of dramas Moses, Socrates, Christ, which remained a fragment. In his Historical Miniatures (1905), he treated the Socrates theme in the three novellas The Semicircle of Athens, Alcibiades, and Socrates.

Playwright Georg Kaiser created the play Der gerettete Alkibiades (The Rescued Alcibiades), first performed in 1920, in which military heroism is ridiculed. The rescue of Alcibiades in battle, portrayed by Plato as a great deed of Socrates, is grotesquely reinterpreted by Kaiser: the real reason why Socrates does not flee but holds his ground in battle and rescues Alcibiades is not his bravery but a thorn that he has kicked in his foot and that prevents him from running away. Bertolt Brecht adopted the motif of the thorn in his 1938 story Der verwundete Sokrates (The Wounded Socrates), an ironic recasting of Socrates” traditional heroism.

Zbigniew Herbert wrote the drama Jaskinia filozofów (The Philosopher”s Cave, 1956), in which Socrates, as the main character, reflects on his life and situation in prison.

Manès Sperber, who called himself a Socratic, began writing a novel and a play about Socrates in 1952, but interrupted the work the following year. Both works remained unfinished. The fragments were published in 1988 along with an essay by the author on the death of Socrates from his estate. With the drama, Sperber wanted to prove, in his words, that “a whole life is not enough to determine what wisdom means.”

Lars Gyllensten”s historical novel Sokrates död (The Death of Socrates, 1960) depicts the events from the perspective of the people who were close to the condemned man until the end, especially his daughter Aspasia. The family tries in vain to persuade the philosopher to escape from prison. This way out is also open to him from the point of view of his opponents; not even the main accuser Meletos wants his death. The relatives want to save his life, because they value him as a human being, not as a mediator of philosophical truth. For Gyllensten, Socrates” willingness to die is an expression of stubbornness and serves to stylize himself as a martyr. The Swedish writer disapproves of such an ideological attitude.

In Friedrich Dürrenmatt”s whimsical tale The Death of Socrates, which was intended as a draft for a play and was published in 1990 in the volume Turmbau, the material is alienated in a grotesque way. Here, Aristophanes dies in the Athenian prison in place of Socrates, who has been sentenced to death and escapes to Syracuse with Plato and Xanthippe. There, however, he must empty the cup of hemlock on the orders of the tyrant Dionysius, because he surpasses the despot in drinking strength and the latter resents him for it. Dürrenmatt illustrates the theatricality of death by having his Dionysius rent the amphitheater of Syracuse for the execution.

The neoclassical Spanish painter José Aparicio Inglada depicted the teaching Socrates with a youth in an oil painting in 1811. A lithograph by Honoré Daumier from 1842 shows Socrates with Aspasia. In an 1861 oil painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, Socrates finds Alcibiades in Aspasia”s house. In 1873, Anselm Feuerbach created the monumental oil painting The Banquet of Plato, which shows Socrates in conversation.

A marble statue of the dying Socrates by Mark Matveyevich Antokolski, made in 1875, is in the Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg, and a copy is in the Parco civico in Lugano.

Several drawings of Socrates with Diotima were made by Hans Erni.

The Berlin painter Johannes Grützke chose the death of Socrates as his subject in 1975. In his painting, the dying man is surrounded by six men reacting in different ways, all of whom – representative of all the people – bear the artist”s facial features.

The oil painting Socrates by Werner Horvath (2002) shows the portrait of the philosopher with hemlock plant and gnat. The mosquito recalls Socrates” self-comparison with a gadfly.

Erik Satie created the “symphonic drama in three parts” Socrate for voice and piano or voice and small orchestra in 1917-1918. The texts are taken from Plato”s dialogues in the French translation by Victor Cousin. The premiere of the orchestral version took place in 1920.

Ernst Krenek composed the opera Pallas Athene weint, which premiered in Hamburg in 1955, and he wrote the libretto himself. Socrates plays a leading role in it as the representative of the ideal of human dignity. The political is in the foreground; the historical events reflect contemporary ones.

Georg Katzer”s tragicomic opera Gastmahl oder Über die Liebe, whose libretto was written by Gerhard Müller, was premiered in 1988 at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden in East Berlin. Here, thoughts from Plato”s Symposion are combined with elements from the comedic works of Aristophanes. The historical events, including the role of Socrates, are freely rearranged.

The material has also been taken up on various occasions by filmmakers, some of whom have made comic adaptations of it. The Italian film Processo e morte di Socrate, produced by Corrado D”Errico in 1939, offers an account based on Plato”s reports. Roberto Rossellini”s television film Socrate, first broadcast in 1971, covers the last years of the philosopher”s life from the end of the Peloponnesian War until his execution. In Germany, Josef Pieper attempted to bring the figure of the ancient thinker to a wider public in the 1960s with three television dramas, The Death of Socrates, Plato”s Banquet, and Don”t Worry About Socrates.

Numerous ancient portraits of Socrates show distinctive features: round skull, broad, flat face, depressed nose, half bald head, bulging lips, stringy hair and beard. However, it is not certain that Socrates actually looked like this. It is possible that these portraits are not based on real knowledge of the appearance of the historical Socrates, but on literary descriptions of the contrast between Socrates” noble interior and ugly exterior.

Two or three types are distinguished among the surviving ancient portraits. The first type is derived from a statue of Socrates created about 375 BC, the second from a statue created only in the second half of the 4th century BC, probably by Lysipp. Whether there is still an independent third type from about 200 BC onwards, or whether it is to be regarded as a variant of the first, is disputed. An example of the first type is the bust of Socrates in the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, one of the second type is the head of Socrates in the Roman Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. The third type primarily includes the Socrates head in the Villa Albani in Rome.

The second type differs considerably from the first. It goes back to a monument, which was created by decision of the people”s assembly and placed in a public building. Preserved, in addition to several replicas of the head, is a repetition of the body in statuette format from Alexandria. It reveals a revised image of Socrates in this period. The archaeologist Paul Zanker associates this change with the change in political conditions. In the second half of the 4th century B.C., the democratic constitution of Athens was threatened by the superiority of the Macedonian king and his followers in the city. Therefore, a patriotic renewal program was undertaken, which, according to Zanker, included an updating of the past, an awareness of the political and cultural heritage. The statue of Socrates probably belongs in this context. It no longer shows the philosopher as an unattractive, provocative outsider, as the oldest depictions do, but as a blameless citizen with a well-proportioned body, in a classically balanced posture with gestures that express that he paid attention to neat drapery and beautiful folds in his clothing. This external order symbolizes the internal moral quality expected of a good citizen. The face, while exhibiting individual traits of Socrates” firmly established unattractive physiognomy, is also embellished, the main hair fuller than in the early portraits. The statue”s placement in the Pompeion, a central site of religious worship and ephemeral education, suggests that Socrates was presented as the epitome of civic virtue for educational purposes during this period.

In the Roman Empire, Socrates was often depicted on cameos and cameos. In a 1st century mural from a private home in Ephesus, he is seated on a bench. Depictions on 3rd-century Roman mosaics show him with other figures. On a floor mosaic in the Archaeological Museum of Mytilini, he is seen between Simmias and Kebes, his dialogue partners from Plato”s Phaidon. A mosaic from a Roman villa in Baalbek shows him among the Seven Sages. In Apameia, 362363 a mosaic was made in which Socrates appears as a teacher in a circle of philosophers. This depiction is perhaps related to the religious policy of the emperor Julian, who ruled at that time. Julian promoted traditional religion and philosophy and believed that Socrates was more important than Alexander the Great.

Overviews in manuals

Introductions and monographs




  1. Sokrates
  2. Socrates
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